Gender and Leadership: redefining and reconceptualizing power

When you think of the word ‘leadership,’ what comes to mind? What are your top three word associations? Got your list? Now, how many of the words that you just imagined reflect traditionally masculine characteristics?

In this episode, Shawna Lewkowitz (@ShawnaLewk) and Anne-Marie Sanchez (@anma_sa) discuss some big questions about gender and leadership: How has our contemporary concept of leadership evolved over time? Is our current idea leadership sufficient to encompass the many skill sets and ways of being in the world that have been traditionally considered as ‘feminine’? Would a society of gender parity have a different definition of leadership than we do?

How much of an impact can the mayor of a city have on the community?

In this conversation in the Curious Public at Central Library series, Kate Graham (@KateMarieGraham) discusses her dissertation, Leading Canada’s Cities: A Study of Urban Mayors.

Kate is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at Western University. Learn more about her research at ‘Mayors Project,’ where she is exploring the role of the mayor in ten Canadian cities — the largest in each province — to understand the how the position varies and what this means for our cities and our country.

And What Else? The Art and Anatomy of a Question

Have you ever had a time in your life when a friend or colleague asked a question that made you stop and see the world differently? Have you ever pivoted or readjusted your approach to an issue because you thought of a way to think about it from a new perspective? Have you ever encountered a question that invited you to rethink your assumptions and biases in a safe and non-threatening way?

What is better than a good question? Join us for a conversation all about learning to ask better questions.

Socialism, Capitalism, and Cheese Melting in Slow Motion

On Monday, I had the opportunity interview author Mark Rayner about his most recent satire, The Fatness.

It is a story about “about concentration camps for fat people and bureaucracy gone mad” that spoofs socialism, capitalism, and the so-called “obesity epidemic,” all at the same time.

The story begins something like this…

Keelan Cavanaugh is fat. That’s why the government put him in prison. They placed him in a Calorie Reduction Centre (CRC) where trained staff work to help him and many others slim down. Well, that was the intention, anyway. The powers that be had decided chubby citizens must either go there or lose their healthcare coverage.

Internet Trolling: A People’s Philosophy

Who gets to define and label ‘trolls’? Will there be redemption for the comment section?

Once touted as a hopeful platform for generative, democratic participation, many people now see online discussion as a cesspool of hatred and toxicity. Just how angry is the Internet?

Yimin Chen (@Shinypants0) is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University, where he studies satire, clickbait, and other types of “fake news”. His research interests include online communication, internet culture, and memes. In his spare time, Yimin co-hosts Western’s Gradcast podcast and occasionally finds time to work on his dissertation on internet trolling.

Justina Díaz Legaspe is a professor and researcher in Philosophy of Language, with a PhD from the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina). Her main focus is on evaluative and discriminatory language. She is currently a post-doctoral visitor in the Philosophy Department of Western University, where she is conducting research on the meaning and use of slurring expressions. One of her goals is to come up with guidelines for fruitful exchanges with users of these expressions.

The Good, Great, Bad, and Terrifying: adapting to the world of social media

When we weigh all the pros and cons, does social media come out as a net good or as a liability for society?

…does it bring people together to mobilize for their rights? Or just give corporations and governments the ability to track our every move?

…does it introduce us to new ideas and different perspectives? Or does it surround us in “echo chambers” of our own voices and beliefs?

…does it spawn innovation, creativity, and collaboration? Or is it a psychological liability that leaves us addicted to our newsfeeds and notifications?

On Monday, I hosted a panel in the Curious Public at Central Library series to explore some of these questions. My guests were Tim Blackmore, Emma Blue (@EmmaJaeBlue), Carmi Levy (@carmilevy), and Rowa Mohamed (@RowaMohamed).

My Human Rights vs. Your Human Rights

Canada is full of legal examples where the rights to be free from discrimination based on creed, sexual orientation, or gender may be perceived to be at odds with one another in different circumstances. Whose rights ‘win’ when rights are in competition? In Canada’s increasingly diverse society, the question of competing human rights comes up often. Join us as we pick apart some legal cases to see how these conflicts are resolved in the court system.

  • Street preachers pronounce condemnation on passerby pedestrians — free speech versus freedom from harassment? One person’s right to express themselves versus another person’s right to not be verbally assaulted?
  • A Greek nursing home refuses admission to a non-Greek applicant who claims policy is discriminatory. Can you reject someone from an establishment on the basis of their ethnicity?
  • The child of same-sex parents is refused enrollment to a private Christian school. Religious freedom or discrimination? Which right supersedes the other?
  • Currently before the courts, Trinity Western University, a private school seeking accreditation for law degrees, simultaneously requires enrolling students to sign a statement of faith that says marriage must be between a man and a woman.

To help us navigate these cases, our good friend Susan Toth (@TothSusan) returns to the podcast. Susan is a partner at Polishuk Camman & Steele and serves on the board for the Urban League of London and the London Police Services Board. (Listen to her previous visit to the podcast, wherein she investigates the Oakes Test.)

[In this discussion, it struck me that ‘identity politics‘ could be seen as amplified and galvanized when human rights compete with one another. It raises an interesting question: do human rights inspire or incite a culture of identity politics? If you are curious to explore the topic of identity politics further, come to Discussing the Identity Politics Debate on Monday, December 4, 2017.]

Who benefits the most by the way society is organized?

On Monday, September 18, I hosted a panel discussion with Helene Berman, Melanie Katsivo , and Warren Steele (see bios) on the topic of structural violence. The event was titled, Race, Gender, Class? Who is society designed to serve? This framing question morphed into, Who benefits the most by the way society is organized?

If you skim over to the Wikipedia entry on ‘structural violence’ you’ll read that the term refers to “a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Institutionalized adultism, ageism, classism, elitism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, speciesism, racism, and sexism are some examples of structural violence…”

In this podcast episode we attempt to drag the concept of ‘structural violence’ out of the academic world and apply it to our community. Who is served by the institutions of our society… and who is harmed in the process?

Questions about Questions

What happens when you change a proposition from a statement to a question?

What is more disarming and invitational than an honest, curious inquiry?

If you want someone else to honestly consider an idea outside the schema of their present beliefs, what better way to invite consideration than to pose the alternative as a hypothesis?

How else do you engage counterpoints with inciting defensiveness?

But even more importantly, how can you hope to share your perspective with another person unless you can understand something about their point of view?

And how can you understand another point of view unless you ask?

What better way to discover why an interlocutor holds their convictions than to invite their knowledge and experience to inform your perspective?

What is better than a good question?

(Want to talk about it?)

A Critique of Multiculturalism

On Monday evening, as part of the Curious Public series, we held a community conversation about multiculturalism. But not just a conversation, it was principally an intentional critique of the status quo. Canada is a nation that has multiculturalism baked into its legislative framework, and we are actively encourage, especially at a national level, to celebrate multiculturalism as a key feature of ‘Canadian identity’.

But do we collectively ask the right questions? What are the negative impacts or side effects of multiculturalism? Whose agenda does it ultimately serve? Does the Canadian experience multiculturalism deserve all the national fanfare it receives?

You know that experience when you walk away from a conversation and say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll never be able to think about that issue the same again’? That was me after this chat. It was mentally disruptive. Provocative.

Thanks so much to the panel: Raghad El Niwairi, Marie Fiedler, Leroy Hibbert, Jasmine Jasani (@_jasminejasani), Tanaz Javan (@JTanaz), and Heenal Rajani. Thanks for devoting your time, mental energy, and bringing your stories and experiences to this discussion.

For extra context, here are some of the points we set out as possible avenues that the panel might explore. Obviously, we only had time to touch on a few of these points, but I include them here for further reflection and consideration.

  • Multiculturalism as legislative policy that (inadvertently?) excuses/denies lived experiences of racism. For example: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear someone said/did that to you. But don’t worry, they’re just one ‘bad apple’: Canada’s not racist, we’re a multicultural society!” Does the act of ‘legislating tolerance’ encourage us take it for granted? Does declaring ourselves to be multicultural incentivize us to shrug off racism?
  • Multiculturalism as directing a performative role/function in society. Both in the anecdotal sense that “Where are you from?” becomes a standard line of exchange when conversing with a “visible minority” (i.e. positioning ethnicity and origin as primary social markers for non-predominate group members) and also in the sense that multiculturalism defines “normative” cultural functions. Does multiculturalism define “visible minorities” as a political identity and assign this identity with specific cultural roles? If so, then whose agenda does multiculturalism serve?
  • Multiculturalism as a pathway to Amartya Sen’s idea of ‘plural monoculturalism. In this sense, does multiculturalism reify the concept/myth that society is made up of a series of distinct, homogeneous cultures that dance around each other? We want to consider the tendency of multiculturalism to “essentialize” certain cultures or cultural traits and subsequently “tokenize” them or their representation. Does multiculturalism play a subversively isolating and ‘siloing’ role on society?
  • Multiculturalism as a political construct with minimal bearing in reality? For example, professor Anton Allahar’s argues that “Canada is not a multicultural country, it is a multi-ethnic country that is monocultural.” Who defines the parameters of ‘culture’ in multiculturalism when it is the law of the land?
  • Multiculturalism as relegation. Does multiculturalism ultimately devolve into a political framework defining “diversity” in such a way as to ultimately juxtapose “Western, Judeo-Christian, white culture” versus a conceptual hybrid/amalgamation of all other cultures? (“Dear white people, you are no less ‘ethnic’ than any other people.“) And in doing so, does this construct subsequently retrench the privilege of white identity? “So ‘diversity’ becomes a way to reassure whites of their place”,  as Sisonke Msimang describes?

A Critique of Multiculturalism – Heenal Rajani’s Poetic Harvest

If you listened to Monday’s Curious Public discussion, A Critique of Multiculturalism, in its entirety, you discovered a surprise at the end: a poetic harvest recited by Heenal Rajani. The 3-minute poem reconstructs the hightlights, architecture, and flow of the hour-long conversation. So, if you haven’t listened to the whole conversation yet, Heenal’s poem might just provide the intrigue and provocation to hear the entire dialogue that inspired it.

Changing the World (is an incoherent idea)

I am skeptical of books and blogs purporting insights and instructions on how to ‘change the world.’ There seems to be a disconnect between books about How to Change Society and books about How Society Has Changed, the latter most commonly referred to as ‘history.’

This observation is not meant to be pessimism about the future. The future, like the past, categorically does not ‘exist.’ It is not a thing or an object that avails itself to direct manipulation. It is perpetually out of reach. It is eternally untouchable.

Sure, I can change things about the world now, but I cannot change a future world that doesn’t exist. And even here and now, my capacity to alter the world has limits: I can only change features of my world, not everyone else’s worlds. (But I take immense comfort in this: if everyone could change the world for everyone else, than anyone else could presumably change my world on a whim. Who would want to live in that world? Terrifying, really.)

We can pick something up and move it somewhere else. We can share a thought or idea with others. It is within the ability of every single one of us to say, write, or do something that changes the parameters of the world right now — or at least a small corner of it. However, I get the sense that many of us are hung up on the issue of scale. We are greedy. Some of us want to be all-star ‘change agents’ who apparently possess more power to incite change in the world relative to other people (or at least relative to the mean average of other people’s ability to change the world). We want more network influence, higher impact metrics, and broader systemic reach.

In short, we want power. We talk about changing the world to encase our thirst for power in a blanket of benevolent feel-good. But it still boils down to the exertion of our will into and over the experience of other human beings.

Let’s put it another way. It seems evident that “Everyone else should be like me“, or “Everyone should do what I think they should do”, or “I can create the conditions that will solve this for everyone” are not viable solutions to most of the problems in the world. But it is intriguing how often these overtures seem to be default reactions.

So, let’s be critical, in a constructive way, about this whole world-changing agenda. Unless the wanton pursuit of leverage over other people is the paramount objective of our lives, it does not make a whole lot of sense to preoccupy our temporal existence with the worry of altering the make-believe future of other people.

What can I change in the world today? I can change the way I interact with others. I can change the duration and depth of my contemplative pondering vis-a-vis my instinctive, reactionary impulsivity. I can take more time to order my words, deepen my thoughts, and invite others to ruminate. I can sit in empathy, stand in solidarity, and explore with curiosity. I can do all of these things. I can do them today.

None of these actions will change the whole world in any literal or measurable way. But upon reflection, it seems like such an ambition — global dominance of my will upon others and the Earth — is a ridiculous self-delusion anyway. That said, I am realistically hopeful that I can change my world: the tiny sphere of existence I will inhabit for the next five minutes. I can become just a little bit more intentional about who I am amongst and alongside the people around me right now.

No one knows the so-called ‘impact’ my actions will have on the so-called ‘future.’ No one can know. But who said the point of nurturing one’s practice of kindness, reflection, gratitude, and one’s investment in justice is exclusively for producing a quantifiable ‘change’ in the world? The question is as least as old as Plato: is goodness good for goodness’ sake alone? When did right living become exclusively valued by its global transformation scorecard?

How is it that ‘doing the right thing’ has become seemingly synonymous with the ambition to ‘change the world’? Often the response to one noble deed is, “But that’ll never really change anything, you know!” What a recipe for cynicism we have created! If ‘doing good’ doesn’t ‘change the world,’ then why bother with goodness at all? What if this conceptual construct of becoming world-changers has become a psychological impediment to, well, actually changing anything about the way we live?

Does donating to UNHCR change Aleppo? Does standing in solidarity for a community’s water rights overcome the power of corporate lobby interests? Does taking a few minutes to listen to the experiences of racialized communities end systemic racism? Does building local networks of respect and understanding curtail the fear mongering of a demagogue? Does one personal effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle empty landfills and clean up the oceans? Categorically, none of these activities do anything to structurally ‘change the world’ — but that does not make them any less important.

Maybe my tribe — my friends and I; my tiny fractal of the global community — will make some positive difference for others. Maybe not. More than likely, if we crunch the odds, we’ll simply never actually know. But knowing the outcomes has nothing to do with whether or not being intentional about our behavior is a worthwhile practice.

If I need the universe to give me gold stars and reward stickers for every effort at doing what is right, I reckon I am just selfish. So, to hell with ‘changing the world.’ If the notion of changing other people is ridiculous, how much more so the delusion of reordering the sum of the whole planet?

Changing the world is either a fool’s errand or an otherwise ludicrous benchmark. Such concerns are only in the purview of the omnipotent. I will not measure or quantify the meaningfulness of my existence by the scale of its global influence. What will I assume complete responsibility for? My time, my resources, my attention, and what I do with the three of these in concert with one another. I’ll only hold myself accountable for the things I can change, not for my transformative impact on the state of the planet.

Be Your True Authentic Self (and other doctrines of capitalism)

Let’s think of capitalism as a religion. If capitalism is a religion — if it needs disciples to adhere to and pass on certain doctrinal truths to survive as an ideology — what are its foundational precepts? For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s hypothesize that clues are found in some of the dominate secular tropes of capitalist societies.

In this post, I contemplate the idea that the so-called, unofficial ‘State Religion of Capitalism’ has evolved four central tenets:

  1. Be your authentic self
  2. Do what you love
  3. You only live once
  4. Follow your dreams

It is important to acknowledge that most adherents of this creed are inadvertent disciples. Devotees to this religion are not ‘born again’ so much as they are ‘born into’ the cult. Their beliefs are as invisible and ‘natural’ as they air they breathe; the truth of their tenets is as self-evident as the wind.

Be your authentic self

First, Be your authentic self serves as the basis for the whole religion. Capitalism requires a population that conflates consumption with identity. Stuff must equate to status. Nothing is more precious to capital than a population in need of differentiating themselves as distinct individuals. Therefore, as in most religions, disciples of capitalism are required to believe that they possess some special inner spirit seeking expression in a physical world. Accordingly, activities and purchases become the holy indulgences that give manifestation of this inner self.

Above all, a devoted follower of this religion must seek to find their ‘true self.’ This pursuit is paramount — the holiest of pilgrimages. The ambition to ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’ must be elevated to the status of spiritual conviction. To second-guess the presence of one’s inner deity amounts to doctrinal heresy and threatens to pave the road to hell itself: a psychological crisis of identity.

(The apex of religious indoctrination is achieved when supposedly avowed skeptics of capitalism signal their counter individuality through consumption — consumption that is branded to advertise opposition to capitalism itself.)

In the religion of capitalism, authenticity is the golden rule. To find and express your true self is the highest call. (Is your ‘true self’ the ‘self’ who does the searching or the ‘self’ you find? Ignore this blasphemous the doubt! Just keep searching! You’ll find the ‘authentic you’ eventually.) Your self-actualization is your promised land. Your nirvana. Your heaven. But until you reach it, you should try buying something else to see if it helps you express or uncover some ephemeral kernel of your essence. Individuality is the kool-aid. In the final analysis, the quest to find and express your ‘true self’ is mostly corporately-sponsored nonsense.

Do what you love

This holy preoccupation with self — its passions, its identity, its expression — leads to the second tenet of the religion: Do what you love. Once you have internalized the myth of an invisible, indivisible, sacred self, you must do what this inner god commands. After all, to do anything otherwise would be inauthentic — and nothing could be more sinful than inauthenticity.

The oxygen of capitalism thus becomes a mass neurosis: the desirability of some occupations above others. This cultural dogma declares that you can’t possibly live a happy and fulfilled life as a janitor or barista. No, you must do something more: you must do something you love. You must do something that rings true to the spirit of your inner entity. Failure to do this is failure to live fully.

The treadmill of capitalism is fuelled by insoluble discontentment. Chronic dissatisfaction gives power to the myth of eventual self-fulfillment. In this religion, you are not only compelled to find your imaginary, make-believe inner self, but you must also find a career that is worthy of your divine royalty. This goal, of course, impossible for everyone to achieve: at least as long as someone still needs to clean the toilets and spread the manure. If ‘salvation’ means crossing the finish line having achieved the promised nirvana of self-actualizing career, then the religion is a sentence to futility and purposelessness for far more people than for whom it serves as the liberating promise of equality and opportunity.

You only live once

The third doctrine in the canon of capitalism: You only live once. This statement, of course, is descriptively true, but capitalism turns the assertion into a value-laden, normative teaching. There is no objective reason why paying someone to jump out of an airplane with a parachute is necessitated by the fact that you only have one life to live. But slapping the #YOLO hashtag on the activity now gives it transcendent value. This attribution of spiritual meaning is the power of religious practice, and #YOLO is spiritual practice par excellence.

To survive and thrive, capitalism must co-opt #YOLO. In truth, there are an infinite number of ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’ that arise every day — more potential opportunities than can be experienced in any lifetime — and there’s no reason why missing any of them somehow makes the rest of life any less worth living. In fact, one might see such ‘lost opportunities’ as salient reminders of one’s temporality and impermanence, pointing to the inherent limitations of existence itself. And this might lead one to contemplate the finitude of ‘experience.’ Capitalism can have none of this. Capitalism exists to commodify, package, and sell experience to us. Ergo, experience must be detrivialized in the name of self-identity. #YOLO thus becomes a currency to increase the net worth of the authentic self.

Follow your dreams

The final tenet of this religion is to Follow your dreams at all costs. At first, this doctrine seems benign — if for no other reason than for its sheer ambiguity — but it has startling implications.

If you were an alien explorer, investigating planet Earth for the first time, you might justifiably conclude that the Walt Disney enterprise is some cult, too. At the heart of all things Disney, you will find admonishment to believe in your dreams, no matter what. “If you keep on believing,” sang Cinderella in 1950, “The dream that you wish will come true.”

A few years ago, my family made the pilgrimage to the Disney World shrine in Florida. To be a guest of the Disney corporation is to be reminded at every turn that you are ‘a very special person’ and that you should ‘never give up on just being yourself.’ From the rides to the stage attractions, the clear mission of a Disney theme park to wrap you in a blanket of positivity before herding you through the turnstiles of endless souvenir shops. The idyllic and surreal design of everything manifests the Disney doctrine through sheer repetition: if you keep believing in your dreams, one day they will come true.

But is this true? What evidence supports this claim? What do we accept as evidence? More importantly, should we repeat this mantra to children as if it is gospel truth?

I might pray to God for my dreams come true. The fact that my dreams have not yet come true does not prove that God doesn’t exist. It just means I’m still waiting on God to answer my prayers. The Disney creed is equally unfalsifiable: there is nothing empirical that can disprove Cinderella’s dogmatic belief in the inevitability of her dreams, either. The lack of fruition means nothing.

Capitalism requires me to believe the same thing. My dreams are the promise that this religion sells back to me. If my dreams have not yet come true, it is only because capitalism hasn’t delivered yet. As long as I am willing to believe that my dreams will come true — despite any and all indicators that nothing is changing — I will continue to reverently chase my own tail through the holy of holies. For as long as the religious order requires that a majority of us minions to do our menial tasks obediently, the system will continue to promise us that our work will set us free.

Doubting the religion

For most of us, denouncing these doctrines of capitalism amount to something like a crisis of faith. We are equipped with an array of neurological defense mechanisms, ready to thwart any attack on the institution of our convictions. Besides, most of us are already now so invested in the religion — our meanings, our careers, our identities — that to question the cult now seems dangerously destabilizing. As with most religious brainwashing, the cost of leaving the faith seems higher than the cognitive dissonance that comes with saving face.

I should confess that I remain a believer in many aspects of capitalism. In fact, I still cherish the freedom, innovation, and creativity that is inspired by the religion. But I do not buy the underlying mythology that corporate priests preach about the nature of personal identity and value. Beyond religion, we find a world is that is not so binary, either/or. Capitalism, like most every other religion, wants you to believe that it is the only means of salvation. But it has plenty of dark corners, too.

Perhaps the next time your television, magazine, or social media network tries to leverage and exploit your authentic self, your passion to do what you love, your devout commitment to carpe diem everything with a hashtag, or the unique sanctity of your dreams, perhaps you will think to yourself… “When did I explicitly sign up for this religion? When did I declare my adherence to this doctrine? Who is selling me the supposed ‘self-evident’ truths of this belief system?”

Power, Whiteness, Patriarchy, and Police Culture

Lesley Bikos (@lbikos) takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of law enforcement culture and introduces us to a world where you have to either fit in, turn a blind eye, or risk it all by speaking up.

A former police officer, Lesley Bikos is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Western University. Her research interests are primarily in the intersection of gender and workplace culture with a current focus on policing and police reform. Lesley is currently working on a nation-wide study of about 85 Canadian police officers and learning more about the impact that police culture has on their on and off-duty lives. She hopes to interview 100 officers by the end of her study.

Notes